Wednesday, June 18, 2008

"Story of a Writer - Part Fifteen"

I was writing for two different shows – Cheers and Newhart, the one where he owned an inn. (I also wrote for The Bob Newhart Show, where he was a psychologist. There was another series, Bob, where he did something else; I didn’t write for that one.)

Barry Kemp, the creator of Newhart – the show where he owned the inn – also employed me in another capacity. The opportunity resulted from my having helped Barry re-structure the final scene of his Newhart pilot script. Suggesting ways of enriching a story was something I was developing a facility for. I had learned story construction from a lot of talented people along the way.

More often than not, I can read a script and find ways of upgrading the story the writer is trying to tell. Infrastructure work, it goes totally unnoticed. But as a result of this non-glamorous story framing, the story is streamlined, and the jokes “miraculously” begin to “pop.”

If you clarify the moments, simplify the “build” to the climax, cut the jokes which, though funny, contradict other jokes or sell the storyline down the river, what’s left in the script, both the story and the comedy, come strikingly to life.

It’s like that story about the guy who asked the sculptor how he went about sculpting a pony. The sculptor explains:

“It’s very simple. I start with a big block of granite, I pick up my hammer and my chisel, and I chip away everything that isn’t a pony.”

If you take a step back, and you’re objective – it’s easier to do this with other people’s scripts than with your own – you can accomplish exactly the same task. What’s left is an unequivocal pony of a story.

Barry Kemp, not only a good writer but an astute show administrator in ways that many writers, including yours truly, are not, hired me to serve as, what he called, “a legitimate story editor”, as opposed to the writing staff rank of “story editor”. Every week, a script would be delivered, and I’d “study on it”, as they say – I don’t know who says, maybe Abraham Lincoln – and I’d do my thing.

The arrangement with Barry contained two of my favorite elements in a job: One, I was being paid to do something I was good at and liked to do; and two, I didn’t have to leave the house.

Throughout the rest of my career, I would serve as a script consultant on various shows, perhaps my most challenging and enjoyable being The Larry Sanders Show, starring Garry Shandling. I’ll tell you about that and Garry’s other show, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, which I also consulted on, another time. I’m trying to stay chronological. Come back in thirteen years.

Okay, so that’s where I was at – I was writing scripts for two shows and consulting on one, along with working as a Warm-Up man during the second season of Cheers. (See the post entitled “Warm-up Man” from a week or so back. If I knew how to do it, “Warm-up Man” would be tinted in blue. I don’t know how to do it.)

As a Warm-Up man, one crewmember I’d focus on regularly was “Ed, the Stick Man.” You know how someone hits two sticks together before they film a scene in order to sync up the picture and the sound – that was Ed’s job. His only job. Hitting two sticks together.

It seemed to me like Ed was aiming kind of low in his aspirations, and I wasn’t shy about mentioning it. It turned out, however, that that was just me, being ignorant. “Ed, the Stick Man” was, in reality, the Second Assistant Cameraman, a position of no small importance. If the cameraman and the Assistant cameraman suddenly keeled over, “Ed the Stick Man” would be filming the show.

Until that unlikely eventuality, Ed would continue to hit two sticks together and bide his time. Quite a bit of time, it seemed. Ed appeared to be in his fifties.

(Digression: The best show business job I know of? “Standby Painter.” That’s an actual union job, with benefits and everything. Imagine, being a standby painter. If nothing happens, you may never have to paint at all. You may not even know how to paint. If you were lucky, they would never find out.)

As I mentioned in Story of a Writer – Part Fourteen, I was feeling kind of stale. I felt like a veteran sports reporter reading over his latest copy and thinking, “Didn’t I write this exact same story last year?” I needed an infusion of creative excitement. And one day, “Opportunity” showed up at my door. (It would most likely have had to. I almost never went out.)

My agent messengered me a tape of a pilot presentation. “Pilot presentation” means cheap pilot. Instead of filming the entire episode, budget-conscious networks order the production of selective scenes, which, hopefully, represent the essence of the series.

The presentation I received was produced by former ABC executives Tom Werner and Marcy Carsey, for whom I had previously written an unsold hour pilot about summer camp. This was the producer team’s second series effort. The first was a one-year-and-cancelled series called Oh, Madeline!, starring the late and truly great Madeline Kahn.

To save money, the producers taped the presentation (the show was videotaped rather than filmed) using the Oh, Madeline! house set, which, though the show’s run had ended, remained standing on the soundstage.

The presentation was fourteen minutes long. When the show was picked up, eight minutes of additional material had to be added to complete the episode. You may not have noticed, but the second episode of the series is shot in an entirely different living room.

The series I’m referring to, of course, was The Cosby Show, and the presentation took my breath away. The jokes were funny, a minimally structured storytelling approach was employed, and the show had a masterful comic-actor genius in the lead role. On many levels, The Cosby Show, at least at its inception, offered a revolutionary way of doing a sitcom.

TV sitcoms were failing. People were writing about it: “The Death of the Sitcom.” That’s not really something you want to hear when you’re writing sitcoms for a living. But the truth was, I agreed with them. Sitcoms, especially family sitcoms, were growing painfully predictable. There are only so many times you can discover marijuana in a kid’s locker and find out later it wasn’t his.

There’s one moment in The Cosby Show presentation that suggested that something meaningful was about to change. The presentation episode contained a surprise that literally caught the audience off-guard. You can detect it quite plainly on the sound track.

The presentation story concerns a traditional sitcom storyline: the bad report card. Thirteen year-old Theo brings home a report card containing four D’s. His parents are very disappointed, and the father’s dispatched to speak to him.

Rather than apologizing for his sub-par performance, Theo instead goes straight to his father’s heartstrings. Okay, his Dad is a doctor and his mother’s a lawyer. But why can’t they accept him for who he is – a regular person – and love him anyway, because he’s their son?

Accepting people for who they are. A bedrock liberal principle. The studio audience is clearly conditioned to respond sympathetically. If you listen to the soundtrack, you can hear them starting to applaud Theo’s unequivocal plea for acceptance.

But just as the audience members are about to put their hands together…the doctor proclaims,

“Theo, that’s about the dumbest thing I ever heard!”

The audience members stopped dead in their tracks. And then, they went nuts!

I mean, the roof came off!

It’s like someone had opened a window, and a liberating truth had come rushing in. Theo wasn’t mentally challenged; he was lazy. And the doctor was calling him on it, accusing his son of being afraid to try, for fear that his brain would explode and come oozing out of his ear.

The audience was enraptured by the message of personal responsibility, refreshing only because it had been abandoned. Theo would do better. And so, not incidentally, would the sitcom.

The moment I saw that presentation, I wanted to be a part of that show. I had been a Cosby fan since his eye-catching standup appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show. Cosby had a childlike, questioning perspective; so, in my finer moments, did I.

Once, when I was lecturing at a college writing program, I’d surprised myself by falling into a Cosby-esque delivery. Though we came from totally different backgrounds, something about us was the same.

Tom Werner came to my house to discuss my participation.

“What do you want to do on the show?” he asked.

“I want to run it.”

I have no idea who it was that said that. It couldn’t have been the man who lived in terror through almost every moment of running Best of the West. True, a couple of years had passed; maybe I was a different person. I sure sounded like one. Nothing would stop me from working on that show.

“We’ll be shooting in New York. You’ll have to move.”


That couldn’t have been me. I rarely say “Okay” to anything. Living in New York? I’d turned down Saturday Night Live partly because I couldn’t imagine living in New York. And now I’m saying “Okay”? What the heck had gotten into me?

What had gotten into me was a galvanizing excitement. This was an opportunity even terror and dread couldn’t stop me from accepting. How could I turn it down? The show was funny and different. I was funny and different. It was perfect match. Wasn’t it?

They gave me the job. We were about to find out.


karyrogers said...

I love the "Story of a Writer" series. Each installment leaves me wanting more.

Connector said...

In yesterday's comment I forgot to mention - and your entry today reminded me - that your writing made me laugh so hard I cried.

Translated into writer's-blockese: I cried so hard I laughed.

Thank you for the release!

Daniel said...

You've got to put these together into a book. I'd like to read that other book under your desk, too.

Tom Joad said...

Just wanted to say...I discovered your blog only recently, and already am a huge fan. Love your writing, wit, and stories.

Rich said...

I'm a big fan of the 'Story of a Writer' series too. I always enjoyed the Cosby show. Didn't it turn out that Theo was dyslexic?

Matt-Man said...

I can imagine an event such as Earlstock where We all get together and share Earl stories around the campfire - you'd still be alive and well in CA, of course.

This is truly a special insight into your cool (yes I said COOL) character, and the shows some of us grew-up watching.

Thanks again Earl.


The Wrong Box said...

"Theo wasn’t mentally challenged; he was lazy."

Except, of course, that we later learned that he was dyslexic. Oops!